Though his writing is censored in his native country, Ha Jin says he fails to qualify for full boat-rocker status.
“No, I’m much tamer,” says the National Book Award-winning author, who calls his latest novel The Boat Rocker. In Chinese, he clarifies, that phrase comes across as less iconoclast, more troublemaker—someone whom others would do well to avoid. However, he shares one important distinction with the book’s investigative journalist protagonist.
They’re both blacklisted.
“I’ve been in the States for 31 years now,” says the poet and novelist, who teaches English and creative writing at Boston University. “I cannot go back to China. My mother died three years ago—I couldn’t see her before, when she was very sick. I tried for a visa many times. So you know, Danlin, in the book—he couldn’t go back, and that showed a really personal experience for me.”
In The Boat Rocker, which was written in English, Danlin works for a New York City-based Chinese-language newspaper circa 2005. One week before the anniversary of 9/11, his boss, Kaiming, calls him into the office to exclaim over news of a “landmark novel,” yet unpublished, generating literary world buzz, Hollywood rumors, and political interest in China and the United States. The 9/11-themed, allegedly autobiographical “potboiler,” Love and Death in September, is written by none other than Danlin’s ex-wife, Yan Haili.
“I scanned the article in disbelief,” Ha writes. “Her publisher was claiming the Administrative Office of the Chinese Communist Party had been contracted by the White House, and that President Bush would endorse the English translation of Haili’s novel. Why? Because the book ‘embodied the cooperative spirit between the United States and China in the global war on terrorism.’ Shoot me if that was true.”
While Danlin acknowledges his ex-wife’s fine taste in reading, he knows she’s no poet. On a personal note, he’s outraged she would exploit the 9/11 cataclysm for personal gain.
“True art can be a passport for using the material of people’s suffering,” Ha says, “because [artists] are making it possible, through reading a book, for others to sympathize with the victims. But if the art is not good, really, in a way, then there’s no justification for that. That’s my understanding of this.”
What could the respective governments of China and the United States possibly stand to gain by promoting her substandard romance? Danlin investigates and winds up embroiled in international intrigue. In this darkly comic, philosophical novel, Ha explores Chinese and American politics, interpersonal relationships, and languages through a protagonist caught between the two nations—challenging the conventional values of both.
“In this book, there are lot of dark messages, comments, and remarks, but I really want to be entertaining at the same time,” Ha says. “I do feel that the book engages so many serious topics—such as exile, migration in either country, patriotism—so I think, sure, after a person has read this book, those ideas might affect them differently. On the surface, it is a comic book.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews.